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Avoiding Cold Stress

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Heat stress is a very real and very serious issue in workplace safety. For some occupations, so is cold stress.

Workers who are exposed to extreme cold or work in cold environments may be at risk of cold stress. Extreme cold weather is a dangerous situation that can lead to health emergencies in susceptible people – those without shelter, outdoor workers, and those who work in an area that is poorly insulated or without heat.

What exactly constitutes cold stress and its effects can vary from region to region. Temperatures that drop significantly below normal along with increasing wind speeds can rapidly rob the body of heat. That means that places that are relatively unaccustomed to winter weather, even near freezing temperatures are considered factors for cold stress. Such weather-related conditions may lead to serious health problems.

"When exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Prolonged exposure to cold will eventually use up your body's stored energy,” according to the resource-filled National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) page on the subject of cold stress, http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/coldstress/. “The result is hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. A body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may not know it is happening and will not be able to do anything about it."

The page describes early and late hypothermia symptoms and the correct first aid measures for a worker with hypothermia:
-Alert the supervisor and request medical assistance.
-Move the victim into a warm room or shelter.
-Remove their wet clothing.
-Warm the center of their body first-chest, neck, head, and groin-using an electric blanket, if available; or use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels, or sheets.
-Warm beverages may help increase the body temperature, but do not give alcoholic beverages. Do not try to give beverages to an unconscious person.
-After their body temperature has increased, keep the victim dry and wrapped in a warm blanket, including the head and neck.
-If victim has no pulse, begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

On its page providing guidance for interpreting its weather advisories, watches, warnings and bulletins (http://www.noaa.gov/features/03_protecting/winter.html), the National Weather Service page quotes meteorologist John Koch: "Thousands of people die every year in weather-related traffic accidents. The best way to avoid a tragedy is to be aware of weather conditions and limit travel when hazardous weather conditions exist." NWS advises motorists to do the following before driving in winter weather conditions, especially if watches or warnings or have been issued in your locale:
-Keep the gas tank full to keep the fuel line from freezing.
-Let someone know your destination, route, and when you expect to arrive.
-Keep a cell phone or other emergency communication device with you.
-Pack your vehicle with thermal blankets, extra winter clothes, basic tool kit, (including a good knife and jumper cables), an ice scraper and shovel, flashlights or battery-powered lanterns with extra batteries, and high calorie, nonperishable food and water.
-Use sand or kitty litter under your tires for extra traction, especially if you find yourself stuck in a slippery spot.

Being temporarily stuck – but safe – might only seem like cold comfort, but it’s far better than the serious health problems that can arise from cold stress.

Tagged in: cold injuries OSHA
Mr. Griffith has a received his bachelors degree in Environmental Health from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. He is a Certified Industrial Hygienist and president of Workplace Safety & Health Company. He has over 35 years of industrial hygiene, safety, loss control and consulting experience. Chemical monitoring, noise measurement, program development and management, risk assessment and computer management of health and safety data are areas of particular strength. Mr. Griffith is a member of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) at the local and national level. He is also active in the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE).

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